First Things for Christian Apologists

For centuries Christians have believed in the need to give a reason for the hope within. Apologetics (the defense and articulation of Christian truth) has produced a great heritage of theological and philosophical resources. In the wake of the legacies of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, many have taken up this mantel with remarkable zeal. Apologetics texts burgeoned in the late twentieth century, along with institutes, courses, and entire degree programs revolving around this discipline [1]. We should be heartened by the inroads made by believers in the field of philosophy in the academy as well. These include Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and Richard Swinburne [2].

Amid the flurry of popular-level works on Christian apologetics [3], many layman and pastors alike are invigorated by the notion that their faith bears serious intellectual teeth. Yet with any faithful movement of God’s people toward a new practice, the biblical and theological parameters guiding the enterprise are frequently not made explicit. Consequently, a naïve engagement of defending the faith often results. I propose here a “first things” for Christian apologists in the form of three questions:

1) What is the problem?

2) Who are we defending?

3) What does apologetics have to do with the church?

What is the Problem?

The Reformed tradition, to which Baptists are no stranger, confesses that the fundamental problem with man is not a lack of information, but a lack of submission to the truth of the God who is there (Rom. 1-2) [4]. When believers discuss Christian truths with unbelievers, they must remember that there is something more substantial than the simple ignorance of facts keeping them from faith. It is rebellion against God.

To say that man is utterly depraved does not mean that his intellectual hurdles are imaginary. People are complex creatures with a mind, affections, and will. Argumentation of the facts is biblical (1 Cor. 15:3-11). After all, a perusal of the book of Acts yields a wide array of language carrying intellectual and rhetorical freight: Paul reasoned (Acts 17:2, 7; 18:4, 19), he persuaded (19:26), he confounded (9:22), and he convinced (28:24) [4]; even conversion is preceded by proclamation of the Gospel’s content (Rom. 10:14-18). So without question, those who pose difficult questions should not be talked past, but addressed with clarity and compassion.

Nevertheless, human sinfulness functions on several levels. Man’s heart is blind (Jer. 17:9). What justifies “sufficient proof” for belief in the Gospel is often unrealistic in light of sin. This is especially evident once they see that Christianity’s answer to their questions is one involving radical transformation and repentance. Who’s to say they will like the truth when they find it?

A truly biblical approach to apologetics will be distinctively presuppositional [5]. Some Christians believe that we can reason from so-called neutral ground. Yet as countless theologians and philosophers remind us, there is no such neutral ground [6]. Appeals to natural law as seen in creation and conscience alone are insufficient. These are often interpreted such that alternative explanations abound as offered by the latest scientific findings (at best, these evidences for God function as pointers rather than incontrovertible proofs) [7]. Skeptics can always explain natural phenomena in pseudo-scientific terms anyway, no matter how far-fetched. We must use our own faith as a starting point for demonstrating its coherence and its ability to make sense of the way things really are in the world.

The Christian apologist must ask, “What system of beliefs best accounts for these things?” Christianity is an entire account of things, not just a belief in God. It must be defended as a system of belief by reasoning from the presupposition of Christianity [8]. This is not to say that we forget God himself in our defense of the Christian religion. In fact, it is when the truth claims of Christianity are given their proper due that the mighty God of Israel goes into battle with us.

Who Are We Defending?

Conservative Protestants today have often been labeled “God’s Warriors” by the leftist mainstream media. Initially this sounds like a backhanded compliment. To be dubbed as part of the Lord’s army seems admirable. The problem with this is that it controverts countless texts that point to God’s power and self-sufficiency (cf. Ex. 14:14).

Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated the rationality of belief in God apart from sophisticated analytical arguments [9]. It is properly basic to believe in God and, by extension, to take His Word as truth. This is important for the apologist to remember as he sets forth the truth. God can stand on His own two feet. This means that we have not failed Him if our interlocutors ultimately disagree. While we have a responsibility to tear down strongholds, only God can successfully unveil the layers of self-deception, pride, and confusion of the lost (2 Cor. 10:5-6).

We mustn’t concede our confidence in Him when a slick graduate student or scientist poses one conundrum we have not considered. Christianity, the subject of our apologetic work, is an entire system of belief. It is a way of life. It is the work of the risen Christ Himself. To defeat the Christian’s claims requires more than the latest unconfirmed discovery in a Middle Eastern cave. Thus, humility and confidence can and should co-exist in the face of thorny questions.

How Does Apologetics Relate to the Church?

“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you.” It is in the context of vicious persecution that Peter utters these oft-quoted words. His exhortation is not to autonomous individuals living out their faith in isolation from the community of saints. It is a call issued to the Christians engaged in the hard work of being the church on the front lines and in the foxholes with their brothers and sisters.

The apologist should address the questioner where he or she is, just as Phillip answers the Ethiopian Eunuch’s in Acts 8. At the same time one ought to point to their local community of faith and say, “If you want to understand Christianity, look no further than here.” While this contention may meet rejection by some evidential-driven Christians, this rejection reveals their captivity to the spirit of the age as it concerns verification [10]. It reveals an equally problematic conception of the church – one that sees the church as the bulwark of truth, but not as the Spirit’s irresistible creation. The Spirit uses the people of God to portray a vision of what redemption looks like [11]. It is a social fact that healthy, harmonious communities make the world intelligible for fractured, floundering communities [12]. How much more is this the case when the Spirit of God quickens His people?

This is why love is the final apologetic [13]. It is this strange, otherworldly sort of love with which the Spirit infuses His children to draw the seeker and the rebel alike to God. Many times this principle of Christian witness is minimized as not entailing enough intellectual potency to win the day [14]. Yet if we presuppose human depravity and the need for regeneration, then this momentary abandonment of empiricism won’t be an odd move to make. We might appropriately name this approach ‘ecclesial apologetics.’ The church’s witness functions as its own presentation and defense of the faith when its members walk in the Spirit (Eph. 5:7-14; 1 Pet. 2:11-12).

Apologetics need not be divorced from evangelism and discipleship. Apologetics certainly includes answering objections raised against the faith. However, the apologist seeks not only to wield the shield of faith against intellectual darts. He hopes through his Spirit-filled countenance, coherence, and clarity in argument that the beauty of Christianity – Christ’s Gospel – brings people to faith. Thus, the link between apologetics and evangelism (what Schaeffer call’s ‘pre-evangelism’) is established [15]. Also, by rooting people deeply in the Word of Christ their own lives become an apologetic. Biblically, disciples make the best apologists (Jas. 2:14-26).

Conclusion

The strongholds that keep people from faith are many. In God’s providence, it is our hope that His people will be equipped with wisdom to answer questions about Darwinian thought, bio-molecular physics, or ancient archaeology. Certainly this parallels part of the wisdom bestowed on King Solomon (2 Chron. 1-8). Yet if the average Christian engages in responding to esoteric questions on a regular basis, they will ultimately neglect the one for whom they even have reason to contend – the Lord Jesus Himself. Thankfully, no stronghold is insurmountable for His Spirit.

Despite our best rhetorical efforts, our arguments may still fall upon deaf ears. The problem with man is a deep-seated problem that has vitiated man’s moral and intellectual capacities. Yet through the faithful witness of the church and God’s children being spiritually and intellectually equipped, the battle can be won. The Apostle Paul, one as highly educated and astute as anyone in antiquity, confounded the Greeks, yet could also say, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22). His example and the aforementioned questions can frame Christian apologetics for believers, both today and tomorrow.

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[1] While this is not a carte blanche endorsement of these institutions, consider the following: Razi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), Southern Evangelical Seminary, Worldview Weekend, and the Veritas Forum. Each of these are very different in their own rite, and have different targets and specialties. Yet they represent the general trend toward more apologetic efforts.

[2] Alvin Plantinga is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where for many years held the John A O’Brien Chair of Philosophy. He is the founder of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His best-known works includeWarranted Christian Belief (2000), God, Freedom & Evil (1974), and The Nature of Necessity (1974).

Until his death in 2009, William Alston was professor emeritus of philosophy at the Syracuse University. Along with several other philosophers, he helped found the journal Faith and Philosophy. Perhaps his greatest literary contribution to the field was his widely influential book Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (1991).

Richard Swinburne is formerly the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion from 1985 until his retirement of 2002 at Oxford University. His most distinguished works include Faith and Reason (2005), and The Coherence of Theism(1993).

[3] Such works include William Lane Craig’s classic Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (2008), J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City (1987), Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1999), Norman Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith (2004) and When Skeptics Ask (2008), and the numerous works of Ravi Zacharias. For an introductory overview of different methods for apologetics, see Steven Cowan’s Five Views on Apologetics (2000).

[4] This phrase is of course reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer’s classic work The God Who is There (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998).

[5] By invoking the term “presuppositional” I am referring more broadly to an approach of apologetics propounded most clearly by Reformed philosopher/theologian Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987). Van Til was a long-time professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. He contended that a truly Reformed apologetic that takes human depravity and the need for regeneration seriously would argue for Christian truth claims as a unit, and not in piecemeal fashion. While he would not be opposed to the type of work done by philosophers and apologists who argue for belief in God, his primary concern was that we understand Christianity as an entire system of belief from which individual doctrines cannot just easily be abstracted from one another. In presuppositionalism, one takes his own belief as the epistemic starting point, and does not allow himself to become subject to the so-called neutral starting point of the unbeliever.

[6] I am thinking of theologians like Cornelius Van Til, Alvin Plantinga, John Frame, Ronald Nash, to more post-liberal ones like Stanley Hauerwas.

[7] C. Stephen Evans does an excellent job of describing this concept of pointers in his book Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996). In other words, the evidence does not demand the verdict we’ve decided upon (often we’ve decided on the verdict intellectually subsequent to our conversion).

[8] Van Til gives further explanation of what this means. See Christian Apologetics; also his The Defense of the Faith is perhaps the best place to start reading him.

[9] One of the chief tenets of the Reformed epistemology school of thought is the notion of “properly basic beliefs.” This essentially means that there are some beliefs so foundational that one is entitled to these beliefs apart from external justification, such as “I exist” or “There is a past.” See the entry on page 609 of Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999). One runs into an infinite regress if they start pealing back these properly basic beliefs.

[10] Once I overheard a conversation between a student and a well-known, widely-published, evangelical apologist. He responded to a student who praised one of his successful books by saying of the unconvinced out there, “Yeah, I figure if they read my book and don’t get saved, nothing will save them.”

[11] Schaeffer’s concept of “taking the roof off” would be a good example of this. See Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 140-142. Also, E.J. Carnell in his An Introduction to Christian Apologeticsprovides us with a concept of “soul-sorrow.” This is another way of getting at the basic notion that people have fundamental existential concerns. Since they are sinners who also suppress the truth, they ultimately live inconsistently. They formulate a way of life that functions for them, while in the end it is likely the antithesis of the actual worldview they espouse – one without God that accepts time, biology, and chance as the ultimate arbiters of things for them.

[12] The work of the renowned sociologist of religion Peter Berger demonstrates this point sufficiently. His concept of “plausibility structures” seems to suggest that Christian belief can be made intelligible to a non-believing community who witness the vibrant faith of a healthy, Spirit-led community.

[13] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1970), 14-15.

[14] Again, this goes back to what we fundamentally believe about Scripture and what we believe about the unregenerate. We buy into their rhetoric and worldview when we assume their skepticism is honestly rooted in a lack of compelling evidence. If we really believe the Scriptures then we will acknowledge the remarkable way that the Spirit-infused church can help unbelievers overcome spiritual and intellectual hurdles between them and the faith.

[15] Trilogy, 155.

Further Reading on Apologetics:

William Lane Craig, Paul Copan, eds. Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists & Other Objectors.

“God is Not Dead Yet. July 3, 2008.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/july/13.22.html Accessed on 12 March 2011.

Francis Schaeffer, Trilogy: The Three Essential Works in One Volume.

Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics.

Author: Jackson Watts

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